Scanning through the questions I find there has been this allusion to "authenticity."

Bird calls showing up in parts of the world where the species would never migrate. Recording sound effects to be as authentic to the situation as possible. Authentic ambiences for site specific story locales.

The majority of my work is in documentary TV, so I understand the desire to be authentic when accuracy is what you're selling. If the script is written in a factual fashion I lean heavily on sync sound and do as much research as I can to use appropriate sound effects. But when presented with an hour long episode of "World's Rarest Underground Sloths*" and an accompanying OMF that includes zero sync audio and a post-it that says "audio- please fill out all scenes, will swing by in 4 days for mix review" I can't help but feel a little responsible for misinforming the listeners.

Alternatively, if I get the opportunity to tell a human story full of recreations, historical recounts, etc. I try to use the storyteller as prism and throw authenticity out the window, feeling no remorse for embellishing the audio in my attempt to convey the emotion of the account.

Obviously, these are two extremes on a very broad scale. But I'd like to get your opinion on where along the scale we cross that wide fuzzy line between artistic license and liar. Fact or fiction, at what point do we become accountable for supporting the propagation of misinformation?

*Not a real show as far as I know.

4 Answers 4


I believe that the only things one can service are the subjective truths of the narrative and the themes and subtexts of a piece. Neither of these has much to do with what most of us accept as reality, which itself is again subjective, and "truth" is infamously philosophically fungible and malleable.

I do love your choice of the term "authenticity" instead. What's authentic depends on whose need you're serving; an authentically scary or suspenseful sound needn't be objectively realistic or truthful.

Look at The Hurt Locker, when the protagonists meet up with the contractors in the desert. While a lot of the sounds are relatively inaccurate (it is a war film so there was a lot of work on authenticity), that scene had a character get shot and crumple to the ground before the shot was heard - extremely realistic but served the moment very well (confusion, random events, challenge). That feels authentic in context, where in a film like Iron Man, such "realism" would be inauthentic because it would be confusing during huge action set-pieces. Same thing is true of the sounds when the first bomb goes off in slow motion; maybe not extremely realistic, but authentic to the narrative and emotional moment (fear, destruction, inevitability, power/force).

This does make it hard to find that line in a documentary, but given that we're talking subjective truths here, I think it has to depend on the filmmaking team's consensus on what level of reality they're trying to balance with what themes, messages, and stories that must be conveyed. Being able to have focused conversations on this topic per-project is probably a smart thing to do very, very early.

I think the worst thing is to be ambiguous or ambivalent. Making smart calls on these topics in a consistent way across a single project is probably way more important than any specific per-instance decisions around specific effects. Devising such a narrative decision-making framework that can support the team on a per-project basis pays off bigtime!

  • All extremely excellent points, my friend. That very last sentence in particular! I think the natural extension of that is something we all fight for on a regular basis, just some open lines of communication. If people give us the time to converse their projects deserve, we can really make them sing. Jul 20, 2010 at 20:14
  • Very good food for thought @NoiseJockey. I really like your point of authentic vs. realistic. To be honest, prior to reading your post I was considering them one in the same, which may in fact be the source of my conflict. Jul 20, 2010 at 20:14
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    I'd love to see the term authentic used more as a description of what is realistic but without the link to film theory realism which is not about the authentic or realistic.
    – ianjpalmer
    Jul 21, 2010 at 8:31

It's an interesting dilemma, to be sure. I think, on the whole, I approach these issues in a similar way you describe. Obviously though, there are programs which blur the line, or tread back and forth across it.

In situations like those, I try to analyze what the program is trying to convey at those points; that is, if the director/producer is not available to discuss it. All media is propaganda, after all, and we don't want to accidentally create mixed messages. I find I try to support what's already there. If it is a factual piece that is playing up an emotional moment, then I'm willing to stretch the boundaries of reality if it helps convey meaning. I still try to respect reality, but sometimes it isn't what the needs of the show dictate (or possibly even what the viewer wants).

I guess that's really what dictates my approach. What does the program want to say, and how do I support that? Followed immediately by: how do I ensure that it is cohesive across the duration? Particularly on those projects that tread the line, it can be very easy to waver back and forth. Looking at the piece from moment to moment, with a broad view of the whole, at least provides me with a sense that I'm not making my decisions arbitrarily, and that there is sound reasoning behind them.

Going back to the idea that all media is propaganda, I'd argue that an equally important question is: At what point do we become accountable for supporting or denigrating the propaganda inherent in the piece?

  • Good points @Shaun. Stepping back and attempting to understand what the message is trying to be is crucial. Jul 20, 2010 at 16:06
  • Shaun nails it: It's all about CONTEXT, every time. Nice! Jul 20, 2010 at 19:57

I think it really depends on what is important. Is the emotional content more important for the viewer than being 100% authentic?

I thought about this while I was watching Blitz Street on Channel 4 (UK). The show was trying to show how the explosives used in the London Blitz affected the buildings in a generic street. They mocked up a street and proceeded to set off explosions and then look at the damage.

There was a fair amount of slow motion so there was no sync sound. Now, it would have been nice to hear exactly what the explosions sounded like. Sadly the sounds used were not from the location, some easily spotted sounds gave it away for me. I'd like to say that I thought the sound for the explosions was very well done and my comments are not a criticism.

Again, which is more important? Letting the audience really hear what the explosions would have sounded like? Or, let the audience emotionally feel what the explosions would have been like?

The show also included contemporary footage and recent interviews with survivors in addition to the explosives tests so emotion is a pretty important part.

I looked at authentism (my word used to stop confusion with film theory realism) and asked whether the sound in Saving Private Ryan was realistic. I concluded that however much effort the filmmakers put into being as realistic as possible, it was ultimately at the expense of the emotional content. The Omaha sequence is designed to put you in the battle as best as possible but we need to feel the experience emotionally, not just hear the correct sound for a gun going off.

  • Well said, Ian! Jul 20, 2010 at 19:57
  • Very nice examples Ian. They reinforce your point clearly. Jul 20, 2010 at 20:20

I believe that authenticity is crucial in some areas and suspension of disbelief is crucial in other areas where authenticity is not recommended. In the case of a location, for example, where the genre is a a doccie or a straight up talkie drama or comedy, the sound of that location should reflect where we are if there is no contextual subtext that asks that the space be altered for emotional response reasons. In the case of guns, I have this discussion before and I always use elements of the gun that is in shot but I then add in layers to make it bigger/more impactful. As far as cars are concerned, unless the director asks for a specific feel to the car, I always source the right car and hopefully in the same condition.

For animal life, I definitely try to source the right bird/animal life because, and yes I know, most audience members do not know the difference, for myself, I feel it is my obligation to make sure that I have accurately covered the scene to the best of my abilities instead of throwing on any generic effect or ambience for the sake of filling in a hole.

But I agree also with what many have said- it is contextual based and narrative dependent. If the director wants to make a space sound a little different from where we are they we have to throw authenticity out the window for the sake of the sonic narrative.


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